The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
'I’m your god now': Musical Conflict and Carnage in Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018)

Written by Simon Ramshaw.

Photo from the article 1983 is clearly an important year to Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos. To date, his entire filmography takes place in that very year, with Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) and Mandy (2018) occupying a peculiar, psychogenic pocket of space and time within ’83. In an interview with ‘Birth Movies Death’, Cosmatos eloquently articulates the importance of 1983 to his life and art:

“Both of these movies exist in a sort of 'mythical' realm, and that's what 1983 represents: the realm of imagination where, when I was a kid, I would look at VHS tapes of horror movies and pulp novels. I'd read the backs of them and look at their cover art, imagining what they actually looked like based on those paintings and descriptions, because I wasn't allowed to rent them. But that's what 1983 truly is for me: this intangible realm of memory and imagination.”

That statement goes some way to illuminating his oeuvre so far, particularly justifying the borderline dream-like logic in which the characters operate, but also sheds light on why his films look the way they do. Much has been said about Mandy’s ‘heavy metal’ aesthetic, a point which Cosmatos has been eager to drive home. He told ‘Filmmaker Magazine’ that, with Mandy, he “wanted to create something like a heavy metal album cover from the ’70s”, further supporting his previous statement that:

“I think of all my films as collectors’ items or pop culture art artefacts. My guiding principle is not that ‘this is a story I want to tell,’ it’s ‘this is an object,’ and what are its themes and aesthetics, and how do I merge them into something like a sculpture? In the case of Mandy, it’s like an album or a song.”

With this in mind, it becomes easier to see how Mandy operates visually. As a genre often associated with torment, violence, and death, ‘metal’ is writ large in every frame. Most of the film is drenched in a sickly blood-red filter; almost every single one of the characters we encounter meets an extravagantly brutal death, and the general tone of the film is that of impending doom and despair. Of course, there are flashes of humour - particularly in an amusing interlude with the fictional macaroni cheese icon ‘Cheddar Goblin,’ or in Nicolas Cage’s energised performance - but what Mandy seems to be mostly concerned with is both illustrating and unleashing an entire Cage-worth of pain and frustration. This isn’t simply an aesthetic sensibility that provides Cosmatos a free pass to offer gore-hounds violent excess, but a strategic narrative choice that fuels the conflict of the film, while also emphatically rooting it in 1983.

At the heart of the film is its eponymous character, Mandy Bloom, played with raw nerve sensitivity by Andrea Riseborough. We aren’t afforded many details about Mandy’s backstory: an anecdote about her father forcing her to kill baby starlings; a scar over her left eye; and a generally timid and introverted demeanour around anybody except her partner, Red Miller (Cage). From these we can intuit that Mandy has had a hard life. But we learn more about her personality from her fashion choices than any exposition. She wears three shirts during the film: a baseball shirt with ‘44’ written on it (owned by Red), a t-shirt printed with Mötley Crüe’s ‘Shout at the Devil’ album cover, and another similar one printed with the album ‘Never Say Die!’ by Black Sabbath. Whilst the first of these is somewhat symbolic of the tender bond between Mandy and Red, the other two are declarations of a “modern” way of life and style of music. Although Mandy appears to be something of an introvert, in a flashback we see her in a busy bar, where we can safely assume she met Red. We see tears streaming down her face, the cause of which is uncertain. Perhaps heavy metal and other forms of communal rock act as a cathartic and safe outlet for Mandy to forget her past traumas. This is certainly what leads her to Red, with whom she feels truly comfortable.

Red’s past is as vague as Mandy’s - perhaps vaguer, as we are given no exposition regarding his life before the narrative begins. All we can surmise from his minimalist backstory is that he doesn’t drink (after he laconically turns down a beer from a colleague during a helicopter ride home from his tree-felling job - this sobriety changes later on when Red loses everything that matters to him). We also can assume that Red at some point used a crossbow that he calls ‘The Reaper’, which he later picks up from backwoods loner Caruthers (a one-scene cameo from 80s stalwart Bill Duke). This may be for safekeeping, but also because of Red’s propensity towards violence, revealed in its entirety in the film’s bloody third act. It is entirely possible that he made this concession for Mandy, putting his self-destructive past behind him to live a peaceful life with his new partner. However, despite all this, Red is relatively unimportant until the second half of the film, as the film first puts the spotlight on Mandy herself.

The idyll of the first act is promptly disturbed by the red-hued entrance of Jeremiah Sand, an ex-musician and current cult leader played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Linus Roache (a real-life cult member in fact - although a far more wholesome cult than Jeremiah’s, don’t worry). To put it plainly, Jeremiah Sand is a character without a single redeeming feature. He is narcissistic, sadistic, vindictive, and - despite what his own opinions are - rather talentless, ultimately weak, and deeply insecure. We are given the following details about Sand: he is the leader of a small pseudo-Christian cult (known as the Children of the New Dawn), he has access to various occult objects and highly hallucinogenic drugs, and he has a past as a failed musical artist. After arranging Mandy’s kidnapping at the hands of a gang of sadomasochistic bikers called the Black Skulls, Sand subjects her to listening to his 12” LP, entitled ‘The Amulet of the Weeping Maze.’ Before dropping the needle on the record, he compares the music to that of The Carpenters, declaring them “sensational”, but stating that “this is even better.” Although the song doesn’t quite have the same conservative and wholesome vibe as The Carpenters, it does share a light and dreamy quality. However, what truly sets Jeremiah’s record apart from The Carpenters’ is the sheer level of self-celebration on display. From the lyrics, we hear Jeremiah referring to himself in the third person as “a righteous man/With a heart full of love” on a quest to find a dove, which is nothing if not a symbol of peace, or more appropriately, Christian peace. It is distinctly ironic then that Jeremiah not only indulges and calls on the occult to take what he wants (he summons the Black Skulls with a mystical ocarina called ‘The Horn of Abraxas’), but also savagely murders Mandy when she laughs at his music and attempts to seduce her. As if kidnap, torture and murder weren’t enough to prove his status as a deeply sick man parading as a peace-loving Christian, he even criticises Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice at one point. Before piercing Red’s side with an occult knife (a rusty blade called ‘The Tainted Blade of the Pale Knight’), he says “You know what Jesus’ big mistake was? Huh? He didn’t offer up a sacrifice in his stead. The cruciform is a constant reminder of that.” It’s very clear from all these conflicting factors and villainous antics that Jeremiah is an absolute hypocrite, positioning him definitively as the film’s primary antagonist.

This hypocrisy is detailed in the narrative, but it is deepened by the actual release of ‘The Amulet of the Weeping Maze’ as a crucial paratext. As promotional material for the film, ‘Amulet’ was released as a single on music website Bandcamp, and with it came a 17 minute-long track called My Journey, in which Jeremiah Sand gives an autobiographical account of his life from his childhood right up until the foundations of the Children of the New Dawn. There is no musical accompaniment to this track, just a faint, eerie echo added to Jeremiah’s voice throughout, perhaps in an attempt to match it to Jeremiah’s monologue in the midst of an LSD trip in Mandy itself. Here, Jeremiah recounts his abusive childhood that culminated in the calculated murder of his affluent parents. Not only is this a confessional that could land Jeremiah in jail if it is actually on the LP within the film (as it is when included in the German limited edition blu-ray set of Mandy), it is further proof that Jeremiah is extremely narcissistic in virtually everything he does. He regrets nothing, and recalls every aspect of his seedy life as something to be proud of and celebrated. The seven months dedicated to making the album (“Genius takes its own sweet time!”) is detailed here, and everything that comes before it firmly illustrates that Jeremiah has always been a horrible person, and that it wasn’t just the album’s critical and financial failure that made him so. Coming after ‘The Amulet of the Weeping Maze’ on the LP, ‘My Journey’ functions as a terrible truth behind the thin veneer of rambling, spiritual waffle that Jeremiah passes off as his ‘art’. He sings about peace, but talks about and enacts the very opposite.

It is this dangerous combination that ultimately kills Mandy. Jeremiah has convinced and seduced others into following him and enacting his terrible wishes. He is a ‘Christian’ who promises others that they will “ascend” if they follow his every command, which they do. This includes Jeremiah’s emotional U-turn from wanting to spiritually unite with Mandy to ordering her execution after her mocking laughter at his art and naked body. He is a vicious and unpredictable villain, prone to fits of petulant rage and brattish self-entitlement - and effectively kick starts Red’s descending character arc through these traits.

Jeremiah’s attack is messy and aggressive; premeditated to a degree, but with one important loose end: he doesn’t kill Red along with Mandy. As he and his posse of cultists casually leave the scene of the crime, a shot focuses on Red’s furious stare. It isn’t long before Red breaks free from his barbed wire bonds (it’s important that he is able to manipulate metal to his will), drinks half a bottle of vodka, patches himself up and starts on his path of vengeance. The revenge narrative Mandy broadly follows is largely conventional in its structure, following Red firstly picking off minor villains, before building to the grand finale culminating in the death of the person most responsible for wronging our hero. However, it illustrates an unexpected contrast between hero and villain that both outlines their core attributes and shows how one can triumph over the other.

Part of what forms this contrast is the characters’ consistency with the worlds they inhabit, and their security within them. For example, it isn’t unexpected that Red would be a vengeful killer in this narrative. Although he is happy and peaceful with Mandy, he clearly has things he wants to avoid (namely alcohol and politics; he turns down a beer from a colleague, and turns off his car radio when Ronald Reagan is giving a speech about a “spiritual awakening” of Christian, conservative values in America). When this happiness is snatched away, he lashes out violently, using all the things he previously avoided to empower him. Red drinks, consumes copious amounts of powerful drugs, and embodies the heavy metal aesthetic set up early on in the film by Mandy herself. It is almost like Red avenges Mandy in the fashion she would want to be avenged. This not only honours her memory, but retaliates against the evil lurking behind the conservative veil of ‘Carpenters’-esque music. We are even given an opening quote that sets this up perfectly. Before the opening credits, the film sets the mood with the following inscription:

“When I die

Bury me deep

Lay two speakers at my feet

Wrap some headphones

Around my head

And rock and roll me

When I’m dead”

These are the final words of one Douglas Roberts, a man put on death row in 2005 for murder. We can interpret this as a heavy metal death wish of sorts; precisely what Red embarks upon as a consequence of Mandy’s death. It is consistent with his own implied past and Mandy’s own aesthetic. From the very beginning of the film, there is a trajectory set by this epigraph wherein someone will be honoured beyond the grave in a very ‘heavy metal’ fashion.

Red’s heavy metal consistency is sustained both aesthetically and physically throughout the film. The substance of ‘metal’ itself is frequently used against his enemies. Not only does Red’s violence operate in the spirit of metal as a musical genre, he also dispatches nearly every single one of the villains with a piece of metal. Here is a list of Red’s ‘metal’ kills:

● Skratch - knocked off his quadbike with a metal arrow, and then hit by Red’s car.

● Fuck Pig - has his throat slit by a box cutter.

● Scabs - set on fire and decapitated with metal battle axe, ‘The Beast.’

● Brother Swan - has ‘The Beast’ rammed down his throat.

● Brother Hanker - has his head split in by ‘The Beast.’

● Brother Klopek - dragged to the ground by a metal chain and falls onto a chainsaw.

● Sister Marlene - decapitated with ‘The Beast’.

The only exceptions to the rule are Sis and Jeremiah. Although we are led to believe Sis is dead when Red knocks her down a pit after hitting her with a metal pipe, she later emerges, and Red resorts to breaking her neck after a struggle. Jeremiah meets a similar fate, as Red crushes his skull with his hands, in what might be the most graphic display of his brute strength. This is symbolic in setting Jeremiah’s death apart, and provides Red with a sense of relief. Jeremiah’s skull slowly coming apart in Red’s hands is borderline euphoric, if not orgasmic, for our tortured hero. It functions as a climax to the film, and to Red’s arc, in more ways than one.

Thus, Red is consistent with the ‘metal’ world he lives in. The formerly controlled man with a dark past employs all the things that once brought him destruction and unhappiness to destroy the thing that has just brought him more destruction and more unhappiness. It’s a classic arc, recently popularised in the John Wick franchise (and which perhaps explains Mandy’s relative commercial success, despite its challenging pace and abrasive style), and it provides Red with a framework from which to fight back and defeat the forces that wronged him.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, is comparably inconsistent with the worldview he espouses. On the one hand, his appearance is one of liberal thinking and peaceful practice, but in his actions he consistently strives to establish physical and mental dominance over everyone around him. It is this inconsistency that is telling of Jeremiah’s deep-seated insecurity, likely a symptom of his increasing irrelevance in the world of 1983. While we are unsure how long ‘The Weeping Maze’ had been released before the events of Mandy, it is safe to assume that Jeremiah released it in a musical climate dominated by metal and other forms of rock, further implied by the critical reception suggested in ‘My Journey.’ These failures evidently bred discontentment and disillusion in Jeremiah, ultimately leading him to his spiritual awakening as a cult leader. Jeremiah is someone unsure of his place in the world, precisely because he defies categorisation in so many ways. The only frame of reference for his place and purpose is through self-obsession and narcissism, which is evident during the film’s gruelling middle section after he kidnaps Mandy. Cosmatos pulls off an astonishing visual trick during Jeremiah’s monologue directed at Mandy that charts his spiritual entitlement and illustrates his self-obsession. Shot in an unbroken close-up of Jeremiah’s face, Cosmatos overlays Mandy’s face over Jeremiah’s three separate times, often so subtly that it is easy to miss on a first viewing. This nuance is achieved due to the fact that Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache’s facial structures are eerily similar.

Perhaps what we can take from this is that Jeremiah sees himself in Mandy, ‘the yin to his yang,’ to use his own spiritual language. This is reinforced when the dark-haired Mandy is constantly dressed in dark clothing, and the sandy-haired Jeremiah Sand is frequently dressed in white. From this, it is clear that Jeremiah’s only authentic stated connection in the film is to something that relates solely to his physical appearance. It is the only frame of reference he uses to establish his place in the world, and when Mandy rejects him and refuses to bend to his whim, he quickly does away with her in a violent outburst. It is all the more telling that Jeremiah does this on his own instruction; looking into a mirror, he repeatedly begs, “Tell me what to do,” until coming to the decision to burn Mandy alive. Left with as much spiritual emptiness and self-importance as before, peace remains unattainable for Jeremiah, and in his quest, he angers the wrong person.

As Red is unleashed, the aesthetic of the entire film morphs to accompany him. The score becomes increasingly reliant on droning heavy metal guitars and phantasmagorical iconography, and the third act in particular never lets up in terms of spectacle, defying all logical and geographical sense in the process. It also paints Red as a borderline impervious presence at times, experiencing difficulty and adversity in certain fights, but constantly pulling through, gaining the upper hand over each foe, and building ruthless momentum in the process. This culminates in his vengeance against Jeremiah, and being briefly reunited with Mandy in an eerie vision that ends the film. Although Red loses everything he cared about, he seems to have some semblance of happiness provided by these hallucinatory final moments. Red is homeward bound, and Jeremiah is well and truly dead. His fate is sealed by the film’s (and Red’s) final line: “I’m your god now.” Jeremiah’s fleeting musical moment is dead, and metal reigns as king. What was it that Tenacious D said about metal?

Music, and its social relevance in 1983, lies at the heart of this conflict. Cosmatos’ film is committed to its period detail - not only aesthetically, but also thematically. The characters live, breathe, and thrive within the half-remembered dream world of 1983, and if a character is out of place or inconsistent with this specific time and place, they are dangerous and vulnerable as a result. Jeremiah is a painful, desperate hangover of another time, and Red is the equalising force to put him back in his place. Mandy is indeed the artefact that Cosmatos intended, chock-full of its own objects that are much more than window-dressing to score cool points. Instead, they are tied inextricably to the film’s sense of temporality and texture. It comes together in a way that not only satisfies the vivid, gory imaginations of horror fans, but as a human story with real heroes and villains, rooted in a specific time and place. It arrives like a myth with a strong moral centre, its characters formed by recognisable ideas and iconography that we understand as very much a thing of the past. A simple love story turned revenge narrative, we are never in doubt that Red’s sheer confidence in the world he inhabits will allow him to destroy the insecure and out-of-place Jeremiah. All this is emblematic of 1983’s music scene. Jeremiah hides behind The Carpenters as a form of identity, but since Karen Carpenter died in early 1983, he cannot profess to be as relevant as Red or Mandy’s heavy metal affiliations. Jeremiah is such a messy contradiction that he can’t even engage properly with the Reaganite political moment, to which Red is opposed. This concrete stance allows him to dispatch Jeremiah with verve, and fully establishes Mandy as another filmic artefact in Cosmatos’ ‘1983 canon.’

Glossary of Mandy

The Beast - chrome axe/scythe/sword constructed by Red. About this weapon, Cosmatos stated to ‘’: “I wanted the weapon that he forges himself to crystallize, a manifestation of his grief and insanity and not like a real object; more like a mythical artefact that he sort of pulls out of his soul in a way”.

Black Skulls - a sadomasochistic biker courier gang-cum-agents of the occult. Can be summoned with Brother Swan’s Horn of Abraxas. Have melded their bodies with metal and fetish gear since the Chemist intentionally brewed them a bad batch of LSD as revenge for a misdemeanour. Members include:

-----Fuck Pig - a cocaine-snorting, pornography-addicted Black Skull with a knife for a penis;

-----Scabs - the final Black Skull that Red fights, able to survive an arrow through the throat, but is then set on fire and decapitated by Red (also taunts Red that Mandy is “still burning” whilst he himself burns, leading Red to later light a cigarette with Scabs’ burning skull;

-----Sis - the only female Black Skull, and a particularly hardy one at that, and is killed by Red once he breaks her neck after a brief but brutal melee;

-----Scratch - a heavily-armoured Black Skull taken down by an arrow and Red’s car (but is so physically tough that the car crashes when it hits him).

Cheddar Goblin - fictional brand of instant macaroni and cheese. ‘Cheddar Goblin’ himself is a green goblin who spews macaroni and cheese over young children, much to their joy and amusement. Red sees an advertisement for the brand as he is reeling from Mandy’s death.

The Chemist - mysterious and mystical drug manufacturer who seemingly guards a gateway between dimensions/planets. Owns a Bengal tiger called Lizzie who can apparently sense when a new batch of drugs is good.

The Horn of Abraxas - an ocarina-like object made from porous rock that is used to summon the Black Skulls. Brother Swan handles and keeps this artefact on his person, seemingly at Jeremiah’s request.

The Reaper - Red’s trusty crossbow, stored at Caruthers’ trailer. Possibly connected to Mandy’s drug-addled statement that she can “see the Reaper approaching” when meeting Jeremiah for the first time, after which Jeremiah’s grisly fate is set in motion.

The Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye - fictional novel by fictional author Lenora Tor, of whom Mandy is a fan. Used to symbolically illustrate Jeremiah entering Mandy and Red’s peaceful world and destroying it with his infectious occult connections.

The Tainted Blade of the Pale Night - a rusty blade with a glass eyeball placed in its hilt possessed by Brother Swan, which is “straight from the abyssal lair”. Used to symbolically wound Red in the same way Christ was wounded on the cross.

The Weeping Maze - self-funded album created by Jeremiah Sand, which was a critical and commercial disaster.

You can read the short review here

This Alternate Take was published on December 12, 2018.

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